Tillman was the first pro football player in more than three decades to die in combat

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated April 27, 2004 09:00 AM

A steady stream of mourners paid their respects outside Arizona Cardinals headquarters in Tempe this weekend, leaving Army mementos and football memorabilia to honor Pat Tillman, the first pro football player in more than three decades to die in combat.

Army Specialist Tillman, 27, who turned his back on a career in the NFL to enlist in the elite Army Rangers, died Thursday when his patrol was ambushed near the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Matthew Beevers said Tillman died near Sperah, a village about 25 miles southwest of a U.S. base at Khost. After coming under attack, Tillman’s unit – the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment – left their vehicles and pursued the attackers, then were ambushed, the Associated Press reports.

This weekend, the Cardinals set up a table in front of their headquarters with Tillman’s jersey in a glass frame. In front was a poster showing Tillman in uniform on bended knee on the sidelines. At another site, outside Arizona State’s Sun Devil stadium, friends and fans of Tillman’s also held a vigil.

His Cardinals number will be retired, the team later announced, while its managers donned black lapel ribbons, as did NFL officials at draft headquarters in New York City. (During the draft this weekend, there was one minute of silence for Tillman.) Arizona State also announced that his Devils number would be retired.

“Pat Tillman personified the best values of America and of the National Football League,” said NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. “Like other men and women protecting our freedom around the globe, he made the ultimate sacrifice and gave his life for his country.”

Billy Shaw, a former guard for the Buffalo Bills, told AP that Tillman’s death reminded him of his own former teammate Bob Kalsu, who was killed in 1970 by North Vietnamese mortar fire.

Tillman, who grew up in San Jose, Calif., had married his high school sweetheart, Marie, just before he told the Cardinals in May 2002 that he was leaving the NFL to join the Army Rangers with his brother Kevin, then a minor league baseball player. Kevin was reported to be going to Afghanistan to claim the body of his brother.

Although Tillman – named one of PEOPLE magazine’s Most Intriguing People after he signed up for duty – never publicly offered reasons for his decision (though he did say that his grandfather had been at Pearl Harbor), several friends have said the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks affected him deeply.